It was then, as my patient rolled away in her wheelchair to parts unknown, I thought 'well, and that's when nursing school ended’. Week 8, and I had lost my patient. I don’t mean ‘lost’, in that whole sad eyes ‘oh-my-god-how-did-your-patient-die’ lost type of way where people speak in hushed tones and cup your shoulder. No, I mean more like my patient is physically lost, jacket and purse in hand, and is probably hitchhiking to Canada by now in her wheelchair and hospital gown. Somehow I’m going to have to explain to my supervising nurse that I kind of sort of let the patient leave the floor to go smoke a cigarette, and I only attempted to stop her once with a frail and nervous whisper of “ummmm, where are you going?” Uhhhh, yeah…she didn’t even stop mid-roll.
This is nursing school: a mix of nausea, excitement, anticipation, hand washing, and vital signs. Where everyday you think ‘what am I touching?’, ‘why is that wet?’, and/or ‘I will not cry’. In college, I used to congratulate myself on getting an A on a test, or for getting a leadership position in a school club. Now I buy myself a celebratory pastry every time I make it through a clinical day without killing someone. Bonus points if I don’t end up weeping in a supply closet.
I’d like to say that becoming a nurse, and entering the healthcare profession in general, is a perfectly appropriately music-matched montage of Scrubs, Grey’s Anatomy, and House. That is not the case. Each clinical does not have a patient who teaches us a significant and emotionally deep lesson each time, which is then book-ended by a perfectly crafted speech from our supervisors. We do not end up later that night in a bar with a beer, reflecting on our lessons and lifting said beers in a silent cheers to the patients we treated. We are not resplendent in well-fitting scrubs under fluorescent lighting, with cute scrub jackets and adorable shoes. We are not hooking up in on-call rooms every 10 minutes (okay, well, I’m not. If other people are, I’m not cool enough to know about it, or be invited).
Instead, this is a war. It’s an internal war of wills and insecurities and strengths, every damn day. There are a thousand doubts that make you question your abilities, all screaming in high-pitched obnoxious tones as you gown up to enter the patient’s room. Can I succeed in this? Can I do this without fainting? Can I pass this test, learn this concept, answer this question? Was this the right path? Why is no one supervising me? WHY IS IT SO FREAKING HOT IN HERE?
It is hard to narrow down which patient experience has mortified me most so far. I know later, when I am an experienced nurse who can perform the dance of giving medications and performing head-to-toe evaluations like a well-rehearsed ballerina with the stethoscope practically indented into my neck, I will laugh and tell these stories to all the scared new nurses who tremble before me. But for now, I will just wince as I collect a thousand awkward encounters with my patients, who all deserve handwritten thank you notes for tolerating my bumbling ministrations. I almost envision my reflections on patients as an award show.
“Thank you to the psych patient who ripped out his fake teeth for a little show-and-tell session, but not before splattering all of us within a 3-foot radius with saliva. And don’t let me forget to mention my patient who, even with the language barrier, very easily conveyed to me with his facial expressions that I was an idiot who did not know what I was doing. And finally, a special thanks to my male patient assigned this week, who called in my supervising nurse in a (hopefully?) joking manner to report me when I brought him pant options of scrub pants or maternity wear underwear. You, sir, make this job worth doing”.
There are two things that so far, to me, make up the best experiences within nursing. First, that hot rush of excitement and happiness when I get something done in a somewhat efficient way. While giving a bed bath, even though I feel like I’m fumbling around like a blind octopus wearing pot holders, I am starting to have more moments of “okay, that was a good job”, versus “wait, why is my hand there? What am I touching? Hold on a second, EVERYONE JUST CALM DOWN”. The second feeling, and the best one by far, is that look the patient has when you actually made a difference. When your presence made them feel better. When you can think, “This is why I became a nurse, this is why I am here, this is actually working”.
I got into nursing because I wanted to be a hero. I wanted to help people. I wanted to follow in the footsteps of the people I had worked with since high school, who had inspired me with their graceful and effortless care of patients. I wanted to be like the people who had inspired me to become a nurse: the nurse who had treated my friend after a horrific event. The nurses who helped care for a 17-years-young boy who had committed suicide. The nurses who stood up to the doctors when they felt that their patients weren’t receiving appropriate care. The nurses who personify the act of caring for the patient as a person, and not just treating a medical diagnosis. And the more I’m in nursing, and the more I learn, the more I realize that it’s not about me, and what I want, and why I want to be here. It’s about what I can do for others. It’s about what all the nurses before me have figured out, and contributed to the art and craft of nursing. It is about being there for someone else and being their strength when they have none. It is about providing the answers in a time of uncertainty and weakness. It is, above all else, about caring.
To me, nursing is a mix of things. It is the mix of learning something new every day. It is the highs and lows of doing something amazing for someone else, while constantly being in a position to mortify yourself. It is the art form of constantly changing your plan based on the ever-changing conditions of your patient, your environment, and yourself. It is bonding with some of the most amazing people I have ever met within only a short period of time, because nothing brings you together faster than cleaning up someone else’s bodily fluids. It is a glass of wine with your coworkers, when you don’t even like drinking, because you just need 5 minutes of a break from your brain and its high-speed feed of ‘what do I do now? What’s next? What does this mean?” It is a permanent path of growth, experience, inspiration, and tragedy. Nursing is a unique blend of caring, skill, intelligence, humor, humility, foresight, insight, and empathy. It is more than a career: it is a way of life.